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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 September, 2003, 17:50 GMT 18:50 UK
India's eunuchs demand rights
By Habib Beary
BBC correspondent in Bangalore

Festival participants
Eunuchs came to celebrate - and demand better treatment
She is tall, bold and - many think - sexy!

At a carnival for eunuchs in the high-tech southern Indian city of Bangalore, purple sari-clad Famila invites curious stares from the crowd.

Eunuchs are known in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as hijras or "impotent ones".

Born as boys, they have strong female feelings - some become cross-dressers, others opt for often crude surgery.

In her mid-20s, Famila is unabashedly candid - she makes a living out of sex.

"I am quite comfortable doing sex work. I am not looking for another profession," says Famila as she oversees arrangements for the big do, called the habba.

I became a hijra when I was about 17. I was castrated in Bombay
Priya
The annual festival - which celebrates eunuch life with song, dance and folklore - also has a serious message: treat us as normal citizens and give us our rights.

Eunuch pride is celebrated with a beauty contest and a candlelit vigil to spread awareness of the social and economic problems they face.

'Normal life'

"Our plan is to make this festival a platform for all sexual minorities, including gays and lesbians," said Famila of Vividha (Different), an autonomous organisation set up to fight for hijra rights.

Hijras came to the festival from different parts of southern India in different hues - some in trousers, some in two-piece suits called "salwar kameez", and others in saris.

Eunuchs describe their lives in their own words

Also present were a number of interested onlookers.

"We were just curious. We want to see what is this all about," said American student Jesse Kreger, who is visiting the festival with 14 others, all in India to study development issues.

Many eunuchs, like Famila, do work in the sex industry, but not all. It is a widely held assumption that people like Priya, 31, are finding difficult to counter.

"It is true most hijras make a living out of begging or prostitution - but not all," said Priya.

"Nobody gives us jobs. There is gross discrimination against us." She is echoing the complaints of hundreds of fellow hijras across the country.

Priya works for a voluntary agency at Trichy, a town in neighbouring Tamil Nadu state that helps community members come out of the closet.

Wedlock

Unlike the majority of hijras, Priya is married.

"We fell in love," she says. She met her much younger salesman husband, Vishwanath Babu, in Bombay.

Hijras as a norm don't marry. Even if they do, it is not legally recognised.

"We can't have a registered marriage. Nobody recognises us because we are hijras," says Priya.

Priya Babu, second from right
Priya, second from right, says her marriage is not legally recognised

Babu, who is also at the festival, says he has no regrets about marrying Priya.

"Of course, my family and friends were against it. But I really love her."

Vidya, a 40-year-old science graduate, is also married but keeps her hubby out of sight to protect him from public scorn and embarrassment.

"I don't want him to suffer. In fact, I have allowed him to have another marriage so that he can have a normal life.

"He has four children. His family does not know that he is married to me!" says Vidya, who speaks fluent English.

Vidya graduated from a missionary-run college in Bangalore.

"I get to see him at least three times a week. He takes care of my needs," she says.

Vidya earns a little money performing Bharatnatyam, a classical dance. She says she enjoys the anonymity of the dance.

"When I dance, they don't know I am a hijra. I dress up like a woman."

Hijras are born male but identify themselves as female and live in close communities.

Even as a child, Priya says she always felt feminine.

"I always felt like a girl. My parents were conservative but I did not want to play a double role for long. I became a hijra when I was about 17. I was castrated in Bombay."

Discrimination

Bangalore alone is home to about 2,000 hijras. The number across India is estimated at between 500,000 and one million.

They are also human beings. They should be given the opportunity to lead a normal life
C Sugaiah
telephone operator
"I'm not allowed to vote. I can't get a passport. This is our plight," says Vidya.

"We don't get seats in buses or trains... Wherever we go we are harassed or humiliated," complains another hijra, Seviarammal.

A report by the People's Union for Civil Liberties released at the festival speaks of numerous illegal detentions and harassment by police of sexual minorities in Karnataka state.

The report says the problem is not "sexual-gender expression" but the conservative society's ignorance, discrimination and intolerance towards sexual minorities.

"The Constitution gives rights on the basis of citizenship and not on the grounds of gender," says Babu Matthew, a human rights activist and professor at the National Law School of India.

And the hijras do have some supporters - like C Sugaiah, a Bangalore telephone operator visiting the festival.

"They are also human beings. They should be given the opportunity to lead a normal life."


SEE ALSO:
Eunuchs 'cut off man's penis'
24 Jul 03  |  South Asia
Indian eunuchs' day in the sun
27 Apr 03  |  From Our Own Correspondent
Indian court rejects eunuch mayor
04 Feb 03  |  South Asia
India stages Ms World for eunuchs
09 Mar 01  |  Media reports
Eunuch MP takes seat
06 Mar 00  |  South Asia



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